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In Defense of Social Media

For Decades, Brands Lied, Exaggerated, Omitted Facts and Glossed Over Defects, but Social Media Changed the Balance of Power

By Published on .

B.L. Ochman
B.L. Ochman
AdAge has been beating up on social media lately. Matt Creamer wrote last week that popularity doesn't lead to influence or sales. In the current issue, Rance Crain writes that "advertisers don't even know what the primary purpose of social media is supposed to be." Sorry, but that train -- and that protest -- left the station a long time ago.

Creamer and Crain are right about two things: First, Creamer: "Social media ... threatens to warp our understanding of influence"; and second, Crain: "It's a jungle out there, and advertisers aren't even sure what the latest entries are supposed to do for them."

Before I defend social media, a question: Has advertising alone led you to buy a big-ticket item, like a car or a flat-screen TV or a camera in the past five years? Or did you read online reviews, ask friends for their experience and opinions, and then go see what the company had to say about itself on its website? Just wondering...

What's social media supposed to do for companies?

  1. Social media isn't supposed to do anything for companies. A Twitter account or a Facebook fan page is no substitute for an integrated marketing campaign.
  2. Warping our understanding of influence is exactly what social media has done. Given the vast amount of information people can access, they can easily look to other people before they look to brands for information. For decades, brands lied, exaggerated, omitted facts, glossed over defect, and generally weren't very friendly toward consumers. Social media changed the balance of power because now we have the tools to talk to other consumers about brands. Smart brands join in the conversation.
  3. There is no longer a market for "messages." But, as Hugh Macleod so wisely notes, "the market for something to believe in is infinite."

Can social media help brands make money? Gary Vaynerchuk grew his family business from $4 million to $50 million using social media, including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. His over- the-top personality and sometimes startlingly offbeat knowledge and techniques (he had Conan O' Brien eat dirt when he was on his show) have made his Wine TV Library a huge success. And yes, it sells wine. Wine makers vie for his reviews and curry his favor because Vaynerchuk knows how to sell wine.

BlendTec says it has increased its sales 700% by running the droll and sometimes hilarious "Will it Blend" videos on YouTube, blending everything from an iPad to GloSticks and even a sneaker. (Please see Top 7 Reasons Why Blendtec's "Will It Blend?" is one of the all-time great viral campaigns.)

And then there's Justin Bieber -- one of many social media-made Internet stars who crossed over to mainstream. When I wrote this post about him last year, his first single, "One Time," had hit No. 20 on the Billboard 100 months before the CD was officially released. At that time, it had 38,936,287 views on YouTube. Now it's been viewed 209,567,935. Does he sell a lot of CDs? Concert tickets? Hats, and other clothing? Yup!

What it takes to create evangelists and sales with social media:

  1. A great product or service: because if your product sucks (a problem many observers seem to think Burger King has) nothing else matters.
  2. Close integration of digital, social, mobile with offline: advertising, events, PR, direct marketing, sales promotion -- Best Buy is a champion in this area.
  3. Entertaining content is a good place to start: ask Blendtec. But that alone is not enough. Not to sound like a broken record: but integration with social media, digital, offline and sales promotion are key.
  4. Including social media in product development: Doing that saves costs in research and testing, and increases brand loyalty -- ask Dell.
  5. Selling what people want, using social media, without a heavy-handed pitch: Dell claims that their Twitter presence led to $3 million in sales plus lots of earned media. They don't hit people over the head with a sales message in Twitter. Their website, online and offline advertising, direct mail and word of mouth convey the brand's features.
  6. Using social media for customer/tech support: Twitter has led to huge savings in tech support for companies ranging from Best Buy to Verizon to Comcast.

So yes, it's a jungle out here. And yes, everything is changing for advertisers, marketers and consumers. We're in the earliest days of this communications revolution. And it's way too soon to write off social media.

We may move on from Twitter or Facebook (if 600 million people get tired of it or some big company buys it and screws it up). But that won't mean social media is a failure. That will just mean it's evolving.

B.L. Ochman is managing director of emerging media at Proof Integrated Communications and can be found Twittering, at WhatsNextBlog.com or with her newest venture, Pawfun.com.
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